Infant Meltdowns: Why Do They Happen and How Can We Prevent Them?

“But he doesn’t look tired! He’s smiling and happy!” says a well-meaning relative when you’re trying to put baby down for a nap. Moments later, baby is screaming and trying to wriggle out of your hold. It’s a full-on meltdown and we’ve all been there, but what exactly is happening when baby experiences this extreme change? And how can we help prevent them?

When a meltdown occurs, baby has gone past wanting to go to sleep to being unable to go to sleep. All humans have circadian rhythm that tells us when it’s time to sleep, but baby’s internal clock is still figuring out how to work. Until about 4 months of age, you are in charge of being the timekeeper. The trick is knowing when that optimal time for sleep happens.

Infant Meltdowns

Here is a week by week breakdown of when baby is usually ready for sleep to help avoid meltdowns:

The First 2 Weeks

Full term babies from birth to about 2 weeks old sleep most of the time and their sleep cycles last about 30 minutes. That is: 30 minutes awake, then 5 consecutive 30-minute sleep cycles until next feeding. This may not be perfect of course but is a general rule.

Weeks 2-3 Through 8-10 Weeks

Infant Meltdowns

Baby’s time awake stretches to about 45-60 minutes. Baby will be in alert phase for about 45 minutes and at the end of that alert time, there is a brief window for going to sleep. If you miss that window, it will be 45 minutes before another one presents itself and it’s possible that baby will meltdown for most of that 45 minutes. It’s perfectly fine to help baby to get to sleep and stay asleep by wearing, holding or rocking baby during these weeks.

Weeks 10-12

Baby’s awake phase lasts about 60 minutes. At that end of that alert time, there’s a brief 5-10 minute sleep window. Again, if you miss the window you may have to wait 45 fussy minutes for the next low-alert moment. Baby will sleep for about 90 minutes, but will possibly wake up between each 45-minute cycle and need to be helped back to sleep. This may involve picking baby up and soothing — don’t worry, you’re not creating any “bad habits.” Remember, baby is depending on you to be their time keeper!

10-12 Weeks Through 12-18 Weeks

At this age baby will be awake/alert for 90 minutes. At the end of that alert time, there’s a go-to-sleep window of 5-10 minutes. Baby should sleep for about 90 minutes. S/he may wake in the middle of that cycle (at the 45- minute mark) and need help getting back to sleep. Now that baby is getting a little older, try to help baby back to sleep by patting, rocking the cradle, using white noise or reinserting the pacifier instead of picking up.

18 Weeks Through 24 Weeks and Older

As baby gets older, you’ll see fewer but longer naps with the sleep window opening after about 90 minutes of awake time. S/he may take fewer naps and they may vary in length. Sleep should be at least 90 minutes to be considered a “real nap” that has provided adequate rest.

Looking out for baby’s sleep window is the best way to insure s/he doesn’t become overtired and melt-down. It’s important to remember, though, that even when we do everything perfectly, babies cry. Also remember, it’s important to take care of yourself as well as baby. So make sure you’re sleeping too.

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